Apple is now a computer company again

The Mac is seeing more innovation than the iPhone has in years.

Apple Mac Studio

Apple's new Mac Studio with M1 Ultra chip promises powerful performance.

Photo: Apple

Apple makes most of its money from sales of the iPhone, a device that gets reliably and incrementally better every September. But if the company's first product launch event of the year is any indication, Apple's foundational gadget is its most exciting. The Mac is seeing more innovation — and more attention — than it has since the iPhone launched in 2007.

Apple's spring event is typically a smattering of new stuff, most of it iterative updates, and on Tuesday morning the news out of Cupertino seemed solidly in that vein. Tim Cook and a stream of executives teased Apple TV+ content, showed off not one but two shades of green for the iPhone 13 lineup, and took the wraps off a $429 third-gen iPhone SE (the one with the fingerprint sensor), now upgraded with an A15 Bionic chip, 5G, a better camera and lengthier battery life. Apple also announced a refreshed $599 iPad Air with an M1 chip, bringing iPad Pro-level power to the company's mid-tier tablet.

But then the event swiftly turned into a Mac showcase. A new M1 Ultra chip will power Apple's most advanced computer: a square aluminum box called the Mac Studio, which is designed to be paired with the new Studio Display, the first relatively affordable (at $1,599, emphasis on relatively) external monitor Apple has made in years. Altogether the announcements indicate that reinventing the Mac continues to be high priority for Apple — perhaps more so than even the iPhone.

Until Apple introduced its custom M1 chip in 2020, its computers were languishing. Apple continued to release new models with slightly upgraded specs each year, but "innovated" on Mac design with near-universally loathed butterfly-switch keyboards, a weird Touch Bar feature and bodies so slim they had basically no ports, forcing users to buy dongles to attach peripherals.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began and buyers started snapping up laptops in droves, Apple got serious about upgrading the Mac. The company had long been rumored to be planning a move away from Intel, with the goal of building on its chip development for iPhones with custom Mac processors. Bringing all of its chips in-house proved a turning point: The company could use the overhaul to address years of criticisms over underwhelming (or outright bad) Mac features and also wow pandemic laptop shoppers with bold performance and battery-life claims. Though the iPhone will remain the company’s breadwinner for the foreseeable future, Apple knows it needs to diversify: with more affordable products, with subscription services and with Macs people are actually excited to use.

The company has since overhauled its Mac lineup with custom silicon, in the process making entry-level MacBooks more useful with dramatically longer battery life and its pro-level Macs more powerful. Case in point: the new Mac Studio with M1 Ultra, which promises 3.8 times faster processing power than the 27-inch, Intel-powered iMac released in 2020.

Meanwhile, the last few years of iPhone upgrades have delivered useful features — better cameras, 5G connectivity and MagSafe wireless charging, to name a few — but nowhere near the dramatic overhauls we've seen on the Mac side of things. (Rumor has it the iPhone 14 could inject some excitement into the lineup this September, but we'll see.)

The trio of Mac announcements today is just the beginning of what promises to be a huge year for Apple's computers. According to Bloomberg, the company plans to finish the third phase of moving Macs from Intel to in-house processors, and is expected to introduce an M2 chip to power new MacBooks and iMacs that will launch later this year.

Apple's prioritization of the Mac is clearly paying off: The company reported its highest Mac revenue ever, $10.8 billion, during the first quarter of 2022, up from $8.6 billion a year earlier and from $7.2 billion in the first quarter of 2017. The iPhone still runs laps around the Mac, with revenue of $71.6 billion in Q1 2022, but Apple doesn't have to sacrifice one product for another to succeed.

Now, about that touchscreen Mac...

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